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Tomato pickers secure path-breaking deal with Florida grower

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By Mischa Gaus, Labor Notes

The farmworker group Coalition of Immokalee Workers announced
this week it has reached a landmark deal with a Florida tomato grower to
govern conditions in the fields.

The agreement greatly expands the proportion of Florida's $500
million tomato crop that will be produced under CIW's code of conduct.
That code includes a grievance-like complaint resolution system, a
participatory health and safety program, and access for CIW to the
fields for direct worker-to-worker contact.

The group's aim is to keep tomato pickers themselves at the center of
the battle to improve the notoriously poor conditions in agriculture.
CIW has helped uncover eight cases of involuntary servitude among Florida farmworkers over the last 13 years that have resulted in prosecutions of farm bosses and labor contractors.

Yesterday's deal with Pacific Tomato Growers, a privately held company
reported to sell $151.6 million worth of produce a year, also brings in
third-party monitors to ensure that the penny-per-pound wage increase
CIW has won over the last five years actually reaches farmworkers. Big
purchasers of tomatoes -- McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, three big
campus food service companies, and Whole Foods -- have all agreed to pay
the penny increase, but the Florida tomato growers' trade association
has refused to pass through the gains to workers.

A smaller supplier, East Coast Growers, broke ranks last year and
agreed to participate, but the CIW's new deal with Pacific represents a
significant fracturing among big growers. Meanwhile, the
tomato-purchasing corporations such as Taco Bell have been holding the
one-cent increase in escrow. When fully in place, the wage boost will
raise farmworkers' pay from 45 to 77 cents per bucket, increasing their
$10,000 average annual pay by thousands of dollars.

By securing commitments from both the top and the bottom of the
supply chain, the CIW says, a worker-driven approach to tackling
deep-seated problems in agricultural work will take root.

"It affords the workers a voice in the fields," said CIW staffer
Julia Perkins, "and it takes the relationship with growers to the next
step."

That relationship isn't a union -- the CIW still conceives of its work
as education, investigation, and agitation. But some of the mechanisms
being deployed, like the complaints-resolution process that accesses
outside arbitrators, take a page from the formal labor movement.

Company volunteered

Pacific came to the CIW, Perkins said, perhaps sensing that it could
snap up market share from companies that want to purchase tomatoes
harvested under better conditions. The arrangement didn't involve a quid
pro quo, Perkins said, adding that the Fair Food Campaign's demands
remain the same: codes of conduct that farmworkers are involved in
enforcing, transparency to ensure the rules are followed, and, of
course, the pay increase, for workers whose last raise on many farms may
have been three decades ago.

A crucial element of CIW's strategy is still to win commitments to
pay the penny from the heavyweights in the food supply chain: grocery
stores. CIW launched new pressure campaigns against Publix, Trader
Joe's, Giant, Stop&Shop, and Kroger this week -- and now, with a big
grower on board, it looks ready to take the giant steps Florida tomato
pickers have been struggling decades to achieve.

"We are not today claiming that we have achieved the changes sought
by the Campaign for Fair Food," said CIW leader Lucas Benitez in a
statement. "Rather, we are announcing that we have forged a plan of
action that gives us a realistic chance to bring about those changes."

(Photo of Florida tomato picker by Scott Robertson from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website.)

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